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Where are the collaborative novels?

Someone asked me the other day whether a corporation could run for president. I said no. The closest to that would be The Space Merchants. And that that made me think . . . where are the collaborative novels? I’m not talking about ghostwriters, or about that book by James Patterson and Bill Clinton (which I assume had a third collaborator who actually did the writing). I’m talking about actual collaborations. Other than The Space Merchants (and a couple other books by those two authors), the only example I can think of offhand is The Gilded Age, which I’ve never read cos it’s not supposed to be so great.

There’s lots of collaboration in drama: plays, movies, and of course TV. Why no collaborative novels? Or maybe there are some that I can’t think of? I can understand that novelists usually like to work alone, but, still, given how many excellent novels have been written, I’d think there’d be a few more that were built in collaboration.

This is buggin me.

P.S. I guess you could call Huckleberry Finn a collaborative novel in the sense that your closest collaborator is “you, X years ago,” and so Twain in finishing that novel was collaborating with his past self. (The last half of that book was written several years after the first half, and many critics think the second part is worse.) But here I’m looking for collaborations between two different people, yielding a novel that is considered to be important or of high quality.

P.P.S. Lots of genre fiction examples in comments, but not much from literary fiction. Lots of BD’s are collaborative, but usually one person is the writer and the other is the artist, which is more of a special case. Some commenters mentioned Max Perkins etc.: not quite the sort of collaboration I was thinking of, but something. I’m still surprised that literary collaboration is so unusual. Even in science fiction, yes, it happens and there are some celebrated examples, but collaborative novels are still rare.

87 Comments

  1. Jon Mellon says:

    James Corey who writes the popular Expanse sci-fi book series is actually a pen name for a co-writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

    Not sure if this is more common in genre fiction. In this case one of them does a lot more of the world building work and the other one does a lot more of the characters and plotting. Outside of speculative fiction there may be less room for splitting up tasks into discrete components like that.

  2. Jeff says:

    I don’t know about important, but Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, comes to mind.

  3. David Marcus says:

    Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Ellery Queen.

  4. jessek says:

    The Expanse series by James Corey and indeed Pratchet has had multiple collaborations.

  5. Robert says:

    _The Mote in God’s Eye_ and sequels are a classic SF example. _The Expanse_ novels are more recent (James S. A. Corey is a pseudonym for a duo).

  6. MV says:

    The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). Essential modern scifi.

  7. Tim Mastny says:

    Caverns, by O.U. Levon comes to mind.

    Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was disillusioned with the writing workshops and decided to try something different. At the University of Oregon, he started a new class where the goal was to write a novel (O.U. Levon Novel U.O.).

    Ken Kesey and his thirteen students storyboarded, edited, and wrote, and finished the novel collaboratively. It was published in 1990.

    It’s one of a kind, and Ken Kesey’s introduction alone is worth the price of admission.

  8. Dave says:

    The Malazan series is based on Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s DnD sessions. Both authors write within that world but I don’t believe they have written a novel and signed both their names to it.

  9. Guest says:

    This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amar el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
    Silmarillion, and other sequels, by JRR and Christopher T
    Thieves’ World, by Robert Asprin et al

    • Daniel Hirschman says:

      Came here to suggest the first. Also in SF, Weis & Hickman wrote dozens of collaborative novels, including the amazing Death Gate Cycle. Which doesn’t undermine the point that such novels are quite rare – and perhaps even rarer outside of certain genres (e.g. “literary fiction” may be even closer to 100% sole-authored). It would be interesting to see stats of e.g. bestsellers or award winner by category.

  10. Mikhail Shubin says:

    All novels by the Strugatsky brothers. If your past self counts as collaborator, sure your sibling should count too!

  11. Serial Box novels are written by teams, just like TV shows, https://www.serialbox.com/ . Like TV shows, one member of the team is typically responsible for drafting a given chapter. I would imagine the team agrees on the outline.

    There are more examples like this.

    I would also be careful about characterizing “normal” novel writing as not collaborative. The number of editors who contribute to a big budget novel is very often greater than 1. A novel may be shaped by many uncredited developmental editors. Such an editor might leave a big mark on a novel. They could suggest removing a chapter or rewriting a chapter along specific lines.

    • Jai says:

      Allen,

      Your observation about editors is interesting and apt. Sticking with science fiction (I didn’t know Andrew is a fan), the obvious editor to note is John Campbell who developed Isaac Asimov and, like, everybody else from that era.

      The 2011 play, Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck and starring Alan Rickman on Broadway, was a fascinating window into the collaboration between editor and writer.

    • Tom says:

      Most sci-fi/fantasy novels credit writer workshops (separate from test readers) in the acknowledgments. The writer does the heavy lifting but the workshop can guide the product. The workshop doesn’t get final say in the novel so it really is just one author. It seems like there is a continuum of collaboration.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett immediately comes to mind.

  13. Kenneth E Carlson says:

    I think Maxwell Perkins might deserve some kind of honorable mention on this list.

    Also, this oddity:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Floating_Admiral?wprov=sfla1

  14. Witold says:

    Andrew, Helen DeWitt wrote a collaborative novel: http://helendewitt.com/dewitt/yournamehere.html but unfortunately it’s not in print

  15. Eric Novik says:

    There is a famous (in Russia) Soviet novel called Twelve Chairs. It was written by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov and it seems that they really collaborated in writing this and other books: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilf_and_Petrov. This satirical novel revolves around Ostap Bender, a conman who was obsessed with making money in the Soviet Union, a very risky proposition. Here is one of his quotes: “If the country prints any kind of money, there must exist at least one person who amassed lots of it.” He then proceeded to extort the money from one such individual.

  16. Eliot J says:

    There are thousands of ghost written autobiographies. To pick a worst-case example, there’s Trump: The Art of the Deal, with Tony Schwartz.

  17. MaximB says:

    The best collaborative novel I know of is “The Golden Calf”, by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Golden_Calf a masterpiece of wit with a barely hidden
    anti-Soviet stance (and a big success in Stalin’s times). I read it about 60 times.
    If Marx Brothers is high art, then this is high literature, as far as I’m concerned.
    These guys also wrote the “The 12 chairs”, which was made into a film by Mel Brooks.

  18. Jay says:

    I sometimes ask this of philosophy, a solitary field. I recall a study being done in metascience visualizing the number of collaborators in various fields. Fields requiring expensive resources tend to be more collaborative. PhD Comics did a quick count of this a while ago phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1911

  19. Alex says:

    Does the Bible count?

  20. Allen says:

    A series is by no means a novel, but I believe that Brandon Sanderson’s completion of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” saga involved his derivation of direction and material from the latter’s manuscripts. Jordan apparently drafted these as contingency plans after his diagnosis for terminal heart disease in 2005, stating that “I’m getting out notes, so if the worst actually happens, someone could finish A Memory of Light [the final novel] and have it end the way I want it to end.” When he died two years later, Sanderson picked up the drafts—which were in places nearly complete—and finished, the most notable alteration being that what was to be a single novel was divided into three (themselves enormous) parts.

    Given that Jordan provided the input for collaboration from beyond the grave, perhaps the final three novels in the series (“The Gathering Storm,” “Towers of Midnight,” and “A Memory of Light” could be considered notional examples. You’re probably looking for more direct interaction, though, and Sanderson was hand-picked by Jordan’s widow two months after his death.

  21. stevenL says:

    I reckon there’s a better-than-even chance Sophia Tolstoy contributed some pretty significant content while ‘transcribing, editing, and interpreting margin notes’ for ‘War and Peace’, to the point where it would be reasonable to call that a collaborative work.

  22. jim says:

    There’s no financial incentive for novel collaborations because novels don’t make enough money to support collaborative teams as in movie and TV. Harry Potter had an initial printing of only 50K copies. How much money are you going to make on that if the initial printing never sells out? Barely break even probably.

    Novelists are the wildcatters of the entertainment industry. There are thousands of them out there, trying to score a blowout. When they do score, a corporation picks them up and uses its capital to create the brand and generate the money that supports big production teams. Of course there are probably hundreds or even thousands of fiction authors world wide that are making a good living. But enough to support a collaborative team? probably not.

  23. Sifu Tweety says:

    William Gibson and Bruce Sterling collaborated on The Difference Engine, which is terrific and unlike either of their solo work.

  24. Matt says:

    Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad collaborated on three novels: The Inheritors, Romance, and The Nature of a Crime.

  25. expr says:

    Charles Todd (Ian Rutlege post ww1 mysteries is a mother/son collaboration

  26. This post reminds me of the comments on a recent post on the remarkable differences between peoples’ internal mental landscapes — whether and how they visualize things, articulate words, etc. Probably more than other art forms, novels rely on that internal landscape, so it would be hard to find a co-author who shares one’s way of thinking in addition to being good to work with. This doesn’t really explain why the collaboration model works for, for example, screenwriting, though perhaps since words on a page are a more direct conduit to one’s thoughts than pictures and sound on a screen, the similarity of authors’ views matters less.

    • jim says:

      “This doesn’t really explain why the collaboration model works for…screenwriting”

      A movie is max three hours. When adapting a novel to a movie, most of the novel gets left out, so most of that “mental landscape” in the novel author’s mind is irrelevant to movies.

      At the other extreme is TV, with less than 22-45 min per episode. Not much mental landscape required for that.

  27. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote quite a number of science fiction novels together, and in my opinion they wrote better as a team than either of them wrote individually. The novels they wrote together include _Lucifer’s Hammer_, _Footfall_, _Oath of Fealty_, _The Mote in God’s Eye_, _Inferno_, and others. For the _Legacy of Heorot_ novels they even brought in a third author, Steven Barnes.

  28. _The Illuminatus! Trilogy_ by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson would be an example. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Illuminatus!_Trilogy

  29. v says:

    In Spanish, the most famous collaboration probably is that of Borges and Bioy Casares.

    However, as far as I know, the only collaborative novels written by more than two authors are those written by the Italian collective Wu Ming, called Luther Blisset when they wrote Q, their first novel.

    • Hernan Bruno says:

      I was going to mention this. Borges and Bioy wrote under a pseudonym (H. Bustos Domecq). According to a biographer, the stories came about from evening conversations drinking hot chocolate. They would just chat and come up with ideas and one of them would type them. It is true that the stories never get to the depth of a purely Borges’ story, and read more like fun riddles. Both authors wrote their best work independently.

  30. Novel-writing (as well as story-writing, poem-writing, and certain kinds of essay-writing) requires both solitude and internal integrity. As Raghuveer Parthasarathy observes, novels rely on an internal landscape. They can take in and project many voices–but through one author’s ears and mind.

    That said, editors can play a great role in the writing. Take the relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. Without Lish’s editing, Carver’s stories would have been drastically different. Yet had they set out to write stories together, they might not have gotten anywhere. I can’t picture Carver writing a collaborative story at all.

  31. bob weston says:

    Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer wrote:
    Sorcery and Cecelia
    The Grand Tour
    The Mislaid Magician

  32. Andrea Coletta says:

    In Italy a collective of writers previously known as “Luther Blisset” and lately as “Wu Ming”, are active since the ’90s and published several successful novels.

    Few have been translated also in English I think:

    The most famous is “Q” by Luther Blisset, an historical novel about the Protestant Reformation aas a metaphor for cultural revolution.

  33. Winston says:

    Hard to think of any heavyweight “literary” examples, but few more lightweight ones. The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. Dave Barry has written a few books with other people. Personally I very much enjoyed “Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling” and sequels by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, although “lightweight” overstates their seriousness.

  34. roGER says:

    The 10 or so Martin Beck police detective series set in Sweden in the 1960s and early 1970s is jointly written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

    It’s genre writing, not Literature, but they are well written books and the collaboration is seamless.

  35. Kevin Hunt says:

    Jorge Luis Borges and Bioy Casares wrote a series of stories together, under the name H. Bustos Domecq (https://crimereads.com/borges-bioy-casares-and-the-dawn-of-argentine-mystery/). Borges describes the writing process in an interview with the Paris Review:

    INTERVIEWER
    You have often collaborated with Bioy Casares, haven’t you?

    BORGES
    Yes, I have always collaborated with him. Every night I dine at his house, and then after dinner we sit down and write.

    INTERVIEWER
    Would you describe your method of collaboration?

    BORGES
    Well, it’s rather queer. When we write together, when we collaborate, we call ourselves “H. Bustos Domecq.” Bustos was a great-great-grandfather of mine, and Domecq was a great-great-grandfather of his. Now, the queer thing is that when we write, and we write mostly humorous stuff—even if the stories are tragic, they are told in a humorous way, or they are told as if the teller hardly understood what he was saying—when we write together, what comes of the writing, if we are successful, and sometimes we are—why not? after all, I’m speaking in the plural, no?—when our writing is successful, then what comes out is something quite different from Bioy Casares’s stuff and my stuff, even the jokes are different. So we have created between us a kind of third person; we have somehow begotten a third person that is quite unlike us.

    INTERVIEWER
    A fantastic author?

    BORGES
    Yes, a fantastic author with his likes, his dislikes, and a personal style that is meant to be ridiculous; but still, it is a style of his own, quite different from the kind of style I write when I try to create a ridiculous character. I think that’s the only way of collaborating. Generally speaking, we go over the plot together before we set pen to paper—rather, I should talk about typewriters because he has a typewriter. Before we begin writing, we discuss the whole story; then we go over the details, we change them, of course: we think of a beginning, and then we think the beginning might be the end or that it might be more striking if somebody said nothing at all or said something quite outside the mark. Once the story is written, if you ask us whether this adjective or this particular sentence came from Bioy or from me, we can’t tell.

    INTERVIEWER
    It comes from the third person.

    BORGES
    Yes. I think that’s the only way of collaborating because I have tried collaborating with other people. Sometimes it works out all right, but sometimes one feels that the collaborator is a kind of rival.

  36. Mitzi says:

    Andrew, can’t believe you overlooked Donald Westlake writing in collaboration with Lawrence Block – http://lawrenceblock.com/lbbooks/in-collaboration-with-donald-westlake/

  37. Cole Miller says:

    Sometimes I like to imagine a novel composed in two languages simultaneously by a bilingual author. I think it’d be a good experiment!

  38. Mitzi says:

    looks like the New Yorker asked and answered a similar question a year ago: “Can You Write a Novel as a Group?
    The stories of three fiction-writing collectives, on three different continents.” https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/can-you-write-a-novel-as-a-group

  39. Torquemada in Training says:

    Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child with The Relic, Reliquary, The Cabinet of Curiosities, Old Bones, Fever Dreams, and a dozen more.

  40. Tom says:

    What about graphic novels – the list of people involved in works like Sandman is incredibly long.

  41. Sean Matthews says:

    Finbarr’s hotel is a literary collaborative novel that comes immediately to mind. I’ve seen a couple of others.

  42. Nemo Outis says:

    Erckmann and Chatrian’s novels:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erckmann-Chatrian

    The Goncourt brothers:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goncourt_brothers

    Could we say that Homer’s epics or the Mahābhārata are collaborative works?

  43. John Mashey says:

    Andrew started with Pohl & Kornbluth, others have mentioned Niven & Pournelle books.
    There are a few more from science-fiction, but indeed, not many.
    Offhand, here are a few: a few names show up often in multiple combinations.

    Larry Niven & Edward Lerner: Fleet of Worlds series
    Gregory Benford & Larry Niven: Bowl of Heaven series
    Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: Liaden Universe series
    Eric Flint & David Drake: Belisaurius series
    Eric Flint & David Weber: Crown of Slaves, etc in Honor Harrington series
    David Weber & Steve WHite: Stars at War series, others
    David Weber & Linda Evans: Multiverse series (Hell’;s Gate, etc)
    Gregory Benford & David Brin: Heart of the Comet

    Then there are 2 books written as sequels to James Schmitz’ Withces of Karres:
    Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, DaveFreer: The Wizard of Karres
    Eric Flint, Dave Freer: The Sorceress of Karres

    And although not exactly collaborative novels, one find the whole set of Man-Kzin Wars series,
    short-stories/novellas (& at least one novel), set in Niven’s Known-space universe, usually by other authors,but occasionally by Niven.
    There are at least 2 stories in series by Mark O. Marin and Gregory Benford, one of whic is 230p long (A Darker Geometry in Vol VII.)

    I’d say:
    1) Most authors write alone.
    2) There are a few long-term writing teams.
    3) There are a few people who write with various others.

  44. Doug says:

    I came to suggest the Mongoliad cycle by Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson, but that’s more genre fiction.

    It’s a bit of a cheat but what about translators of original material? Whenever I read books by Umberto Eco I wonder how much of the prose is Eco’s exactly and how much is William Weaver’s. I realize Weaver’s only working at the margins but isn’t he in some ways a co-author (of the English version)?

  45. Martha (Smith) says:

    Martha Henissart and Mary Jane Latsis, who wrote under the join name Emma Lathen (which was a combination of parts of their last names), and also under the joint name R. B. Dominic (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Lathen for more info.)

  46. OliP says:

    Should there be collaborative literary fiction? If literature is an attempt to honestly grapple with the world and reveal some profound experience of it to others, then it makes complete sense to me that there should be no collaborative high literature. The gap between individual minds is too large.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I don’t follow your logic.

      • OliP says:

        All I mean is that high literature has typically been considered to be the result of intense introspection, collaboration between minds is surely a different type of thing (recall the points made by Daniel L. and others on another post recently about how vast the gulf between different individual’s experiences of the world can be). I’m not claiming that collaborative writing is worthless, only that the canon of the ‘best that has been thought and said’ seems constrained to be solitary given that artistic genius is the result of a exceptional mind representing the world on its own terms.

        • John Bullock says:

          I think that you can put the point more generally than that; there’s no need to restrict the point to artistic genius or anything approaching it.

          Co-authoring is compromise. If you have a particular vision or taste, you will inevitably be compromising it when you co-author. And the more that you care about your vision or your taste, the less you will like the prospect of co-authoring.

          If you are willing to assume that novelists (even bad novelists) are especially motivated by their own visions or tastes, it becomes unsurprising that they co-author only very infrequently.

          Perhaps the point extends to social-science scholarship. Co-authored articles may be better on average; I really don’t know. But where do we find the most original articles, the purest expressions of a scholar’s distinct vision? I venture that we find it disproportionately in single-author articles.

  47. Andrew Greschner says:

    Weis and Hickman too. One thing a bunch of these have in common is that they grew out of gaming sessions, the story was already collaborative and it’s natural that a co-author knows a particular character’s voice better than you. Drama is basically the same, you’re writing for other people to say, and it’s expected that the actor and director will have collaborative input.

    The other thing is that they’re comparatively plot heavy, which literary fiction mostly isn’t.

  48. Steve Sailer says:

    In his 1942 novel “Put Out More Flags,” Evelyn Waugh has fun lampooning Auden and Isherwood as the poets Parsnip and Pimpernel who need to write poems and plays together and respond to Britain entering WWII by taking off for the USA.

  49. Steve Sailer says:

    In the early days of movies, a lot of screenwriting teams were one man and one woman. Lately, they are more often two men, especially two brothers. But the idea of having a man and a woman collaborate seems sensible, especially for a shared date night product like a movie. A lot of old movies were intentionally created to appeal both to women and men.

    Novels are usually bought and read alone, so there is less need for a book to appeal to both sexes.

  50. Steve Sailer says:

    Speaking of brothers writing together, I read an article in the Princeton alumni magazine about Ethan Coen’s years at Princeton. His roommate said he spent all his time on the phone talking to his older brother Joel about who they were going to cast in their future movies. The roommate advised Ethan to get out and network, but Ethan wasn’t interested because he already knew who was going to be his career partner.

    A half century later, it’s all proceeding according to plan.

  51. Steve Sailer says:

    It’s possible that the bestselling novels published under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante are by a husband-wife team. The most popular theory at present is that the wife, a distinguished translator, started writing her own novels when her favorite novelist died. But her husband is one of the more prolific and admired novelists in Italy, so it’s plausible they work together in some unknown fashion.

  52. Steve Sailer says:

    Google Drive makes simultaneous collaboration with both authors having their hands on the keyboard at the same time much more feasible than in the past. So perhaps we shall see more collaborations in the future.

  53. Howard Edwards says:

    How about “The Walnut” by Joseph and Joan Castleman?

    Okay I admit that they’re fictional characters too but I did enjoy the movie.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wife_(2017_film)

    • Andrew says:

      Howard:

      Here’s my review of the book and the movie.

      • Howard Edwards says:

        Thanks for that, I will likely recommend the book for the Book Club I belong to. We are currently reading “Ducks, Newburyport” by Lucy Ellmann which I would summarise as the (ongoing) stream of Marge Simpson’s consciousness. It mentions Schild regression on page 1 and I’m half-way through it – currently learning a lot about the not-too-pleasant history of European settlement in Ohio.

  54. Steve Reilly says:

    Robert Louis Stevenson had a few with his stepson, Lloyd Osborne. The Wrong Box is a farce about a dead body that gets lost, and The Ebb-Tide and The Wrecker are novels set in Pacific islands. Not Stevenson’s best, though the author of The Garden of Forking Paths really liked The Wrecker. RLS also teamed up with WH “Master of my fate” Henley for a few plays, including one that sort of prefigures Jeckyll and Hyde.

  55. Eric says:

    More SF: _Freedom and Necessity_ by Steven Brust and Emma Bull, and the “Compleat Enchanter” books by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, although I guess those latter are more collected novellas.

    And the fine _Will Grayson, Will Grayson_ by John Green and David Levithan.

  56. TB says:

    Richard Preston wrote about half of *Micro*, the novel Michael Crichton was working on when he died.

    The first episode of Columbo features a collaborative novelist duo, though it turns out one of them was doing all the writing. He is murdered by his partner after he decides to end the partnership.

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